Ray's Theory: Against The Backdrop Of Chaos In Illinois

The Shazam Championships was able to bring together the community in a raw display of emotions

Against the backdrop of chaos in Illinois youth sports, ShaZam Champs provides closure to the most normal sports season in the state.

Any Illinois high school basketball parents, coaches, and athletes would have been shocked to see the event held at Three Sisters Park outside of Chillicothe, IL.

Each of the last two weeks has brought confusion and complexity to the high school sports situation in Illinois. The governor's office and the IHSA continue to struggle to communicate to determine sports seasons, and this has resulted in many mixed signals for winter sports, especially basketball. Unfortunately, the time and effort of athletes and coaches have been spent moving back and forth between the two sides in this struggle of wills.

So, it seems almost unimaginable that at the same time as this chaos, cross country finished its season with the closest event to a state championship in any sport has had in the state.

There can be many opinions about how closely the ShaZam Champs 2020 resembled the normal Illinois state meet and if it should be considered as such. The legacy of the meet, and how the champions of the meet will be viewed as time goes on, remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that the meet provided much-needed closure and finality to the season for 120 teams and many individuals.

The idea for the ShaZam Champs, a brainchild of Brad Henz, Adam White, and other contributors, came in the midst of the 'COVID-region' rule, handcuffing teams to competing against only regional competition. Centralizing competition was a radical idea at this time, but ShaZam got out ahead of possible complications by maintaining a transparent relationship with the IDPH from Day 1. ShaZam's vision proved to be prescient, since IHSA's reinstatement of sectionals allowed for the inter-COVID region mingling it previously denied.

Covering the sport this year provided unique challenges, that, as I pointed out to Mike Clark of the Chicago Tribune in a personal conversation, basketball and football journalists face normally. No competition between the macro-regions of the state meant it was a difficult task to compare the performances of these teams. Add in the unknown variables introduced by numerous newly contrived courses, and the 2020 Illinois cross country season seemed like a jumble of poorly choreographed,semi-parallel sports seasons with little coordination and no relation.

Yet, as fractured as the season felt at times, similar common endpoints began to emerge as Sectionals and the ShaZam champs materialized. The new regional/sectional structure for 2A and 3A was employed, meaningless regionals, and even fewer teams qualifying. While football teams were ending their limited contact days, and IHSA continued to combat with Pritzker on the basketball battleground, every eligible school in the state competed at cross country regionals.

Two compelling weeks of legitimate postseason cross country had already exceeded the pre-season expectation.

For many, ShaZam was a bonus week of running and competing beyond the allotted season. For a select few, this was the chance to run for a quasi-championship. But for all, this was validation that the creativity and determination of the Illinois cross country community (combined with coronavirus data generally optimistic about the lack of outdoor transmission) was worth the effort. No, the meet was not a perfect meet, but neither is any 'normal' state meet. It is entirely possible that a state race the same weekend at Detweiller may have created identical racing storylines-upset over Naperville North girls by York, emergence of Oak Park-River Forest junior Josephine Welin, official final statement of Herscher junior Drew Rogers, et cetera.

Some analysis of the course (credit to Roland Hopkins at IL XC Speed Ratings for the work) suggests that the ShaZam champs, from a performance level perspective, emulated an in-season meet more than a championship race. But for attendees and athletes, the eye test showed something different: this was an appropriate, and necessary, bookend for a victorious season against the odds. The best teams received trophies, the best runners crossed the line first, and Illinois ran a full cross country season in the year 2020.